Flexibility and the teacher-learner-institution triad

By Caroline Haythornthwaite posted on April 29th, 2015

The term flexible learning is bandied about a lot these days, but what does it really mean? Does it signify a brave new transformation in approach and practice for teaching, learning and education, and if so, what kind of transformation is it? It is all new, or does it—or can it—inherit and gain from the state-of-the-art of the former flexible option of online or e-learning?

Let me state my biases up front. I’ve been researching and writing about online learning, online community, and online social networks for a number of years. I’m an e-learning proponent, and have been since my first days teaching online in the mid-1990s. But what I support is the complex that is ‘e-learning’—the social, technical and societal mix that embraces a comprehensive acknowledgement of the dramatic transformations happening in who, where, when and with whom we learn.

At the time I started in this area, e-learning was (and perhaps still is) often just another name for the (often despised) learning management system. E-learning wasn’t about learning, it was about management of student registrations, assignments and grades. But my experience with an in-house Moodle environment was quite different. It was about co-construction of syllabi and knowledge. Courses went from the tabula rasa of an empty environment—the empty template for weekly course materials, the eerily empty discussion boards, the silent chat room—to a fully populated resource composed of course materials posted both before the online class and after in response to class discussion, conversations seeded with questions and responded to with information, debate, humour and personality, and overflowing live chat chaos running simultaneously with live audio and internet delivered lectures. Did I mention it was fun?

This lively co-construction of knowledge models the best of expert learning, where participants work as much on the questions to be answered as the answers themselves. Capacity is managed through collaborative learning, but requires ceding authority to the learners, letting conversations run without oversight, even while retaining the possibility of oversight. And, as capacity challenges us further in massively open online courses, even the authority of grading can be ceded to learners (Paulin & Haythornthwaite, forthcoming). Flexible control. Roles emerge of learner-leaders, conversation synthesizers, summarizers, resource mavens. Community emerges as attention grows to include the others in the e-learning environment as well as to the topic at hand. In the seamless attachment to the online world, resources in text, video, audio forms, and fellow learners and experts, can be brought into the learning community. Flexible and synthetic growth in flexible, continuously emerging networks of knowledge and people. It was—and is for those who practice it—what I see as the essence of flexible learning. It is nimble, agile, responsive to change, and living right there in the moment. Did I mention that it can be exhausting?

I’m on a campaign to rehabilitate the term e-learning to signify this co-constructive, open, online practice. I use e-learning to refer to the way we learn in the 21st century—online and through computer media, with local and remote known and unknown others—and to address the transformation in who, where, when and with whom we learn that has been brought on by the Internet and its rapidly accumulating resources for learning (Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011; Haythornthwaite, 2014). My colleague Richard Andrews and I see the ‘e-‘ prefix as vital, as it keeps e-learning more in line with the use in e-research and e-science (Andrews & Haythornthwaite, 2007). E-learning signifies the ubiquity of online learning opportunities and instances (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009), the connectivity of resources and actors (Siemens, 2005), the transformation in network relations (Haythornthwaite, 2005, 2011), and the resulting ‘big data’ streams that can be harnessed to assess learning practices and outcomes (e.g., in the emerging area of ‘learning analytics’, Haythornthwaite, de Laat & Dawson, 2013; Long & Siemens, 2011; Siemens, 2010; Society for Learning Analytics Research).

Flexibility is an outcome of e-learning, an option opened up by e-learning. And simultaneously, e-learning challenges rigidity (if that’s the opposite of flexible), driving change…indeed, driving it right up to the campus classroom door and demanding parking space!

I’m all for this kind of engaged, anytime, anywhere learning, flexibility in learning locale, time of day, time of life, appropriation of electronic and campus resources, and reassignment of expert and novice roles and relations in learning environments. But I am not naïve about the difficulty of this change. Indeed, it is one of the outcomes of our 2+ decades of e-learning that we know a lot about changes in practice that challenge the authority of the teacher, the passivity of the learner, and the organization of university systems. Flexible is not easy. And it is not ad hoc. Flexibility—like playing the fool—is a job for the wise.

So let’s take a look at these three constituencies—faculty, learners, universities—and really ask ‘flexible for whom, where and under what circumstances?’

While much is made of the ability for anywhere, anytime learning, just ask the faculty member who is fielding questions 24/7 from students in local or remote time zones how wonderfully flexible this is. And, indeed, at the start, most of the effort in understanding the transformation to time- and place-flexible e-learning was on how to teach online and how to manage this kind of load. The major response has been the adoption of collaborative learning. As described above, this entails ceding authority to learners. This transition is often difficult for those who hold to the identity of the faculty member or teacher as bound up with authoritative knowledge, or who hold to the lecture format only. It is not so difficult if the practices of research and the operation of research teams is reconsidered as the model, and if adult learning—for all ages—is taken as the approach. Both these changes suggest an increased role and independence for the learner. This may be new to learners who have, themselves, come to adopt the teacher-as-authority and lecture model of knowledge acquisition. So it is a joint change in expectations—one, btw, that we seems to have no problem in adopting in relation to our graduate students.

Now, consider the student, immersed in anywhere, anytime learning, and also trying to engage with others in local or remote time zones, while also coming to understand the new expectations of flexible learning. In 2001, Cheris Kramarae described how the flexible option in online learning had become the third shift in women’s days, on top of the first two shifts of work and home. At around the same time, my colleague Michelle Kazmer and I wrote that the online learners we studied, also primarily women, were juggling multiple social worlds that included work, home and school, as well as voluntary and leisure worlds. Kramarae’s image granted separation of the elements of the day, but our e-learners juggled these worlds simultaneously. These adult learners had to effect flexibility in their work and home environments in order to make their flexible learning possible. These online learners also had to be flexible in what it meant to learn as ‘pioneers’ in the new online, collaborative environments. Norms and practices needed to be established as all involved learned how ‘to be’ online learners.

Enter MOOCs, a whole new platform for flexible learning. But, as in the early implementation of online learning, first forays into MOOCs appear to recreate the lecture and tutorial format of on-campus learning. MOOC instructors and learners are now developing and co-developing the norms and practices for this environment. We have questions: will what has been learned about engaging learners in online classes scale up to the numbers associated with MOOCs? Will there be a reinvention of collaborative learning, learning management systems, and feedback mechanisms for the massive setting? Will MOOCs offer more than just flexibility in cost? And how will expectations for learners be considered and managed in the networked collaboration that is massive online learning?

And what about the institution? On the one hand, how ready is a system of 13 week classes, 3 face-to-face contact hours, fixed-credit degree programs, academic year calendars, and physical campuses and classrooms to be flexible? On the other, how ready is the institution to manage long-held concepts of identity accompanying the role of a teacher, faculty member, student? Can universities adopt agile methods for agile practice (Twidale & Nichols, 2013), embrace design thinking to redevelop curricula and instruction, and instantiate nimble structures that support cross-campus and campus-community programs and initiatives?

So, what can we learn from our flexible learning history to effect its next chapter? The flexible, e-learning option started with a focus on how to teach online, and then we found the need to turn to the role of the learner, co-opting them into co-teaching and co-construction of knowledge. Open access, online content, and the digital habits and devices of contemporary life have and are pushing us forward to more open learning. MOOCs have restarted the e-learning implementation cycle, and perhaps it will pass from authority-led to learner-collaborative at a faster pace. MOOCs may also be providing a starting model for institution-level implementation, as now institutions also join to enact the teacher-learner-institution triad, and as institutions learn ‘to be’ flexible education providers.

Andrews, R. & Haythornthwaite, C. (2007). Introduction to e-learning research. In R. Andrews & C. Haythornthwaite (Eds.), Handbook of E-Learning Research (pp. 1-52). London: Sage. http://www.uk.sagepub.com/upm-data/46853_2___Andrews_HaythornthwaiteCH01.PDF

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.)(2009). Ubiquitous Learning. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2005). Social networks and Internet connectivity effects. Information, Communication & Society, 8(2), 125-147.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2011). Online knowledge crowds and communities. In J. Echeverria, A. Alonso & P.J. Oiarzabal (Eds.), Knowledge Communities (pp. 193-209). Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/14198

Haythornthwaite, C. (2013). Emergent practices for literacy, e-learners, and the digital university. In Robin Goodfellow & Mary Lea (Eds). Literacy in the Digital University (pp. 56-66). Routledge.

Haythornthwaite, C. & Andrews, R. (2011). E-learning Theory and Practice. London: Sage.

Haythornthwaite, C., De Laat, M. & Dawson, S. (Eds.) (2013). Learning analytics. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(10), whole issue. http://abs.sagepub.com/content/57/10.toc

Kazmer, M.M. & Haythornthwaite, C. (2001). Juggling multiple social worlds: Distance students on and offline. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(3), 510-529.

Kramarae, C. (2001). The Third Shift: Women Learning Online. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

Long, P. & Siemens, G. (2011). Penetrating the fog: analytics in learning and education. Educause Review. Sept/Oct 2011, 31-40. http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/penetrating-fog-analytics-learning-and-education

Paulin, D. & Haythornthwaite, C. (forthcoming). Crowdsourcing the curriculum: Redefining e-learning practices through peer-generated approaches. The Information Society.

Siemens, G. (2010). What are Learning Analytics? http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2010/08/25/what-are-learning-analytics/.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation. http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/networks.htm

Twidale, M.B. & Nichols, D.M. (2013). Agile methods for agile universities. In T. A. C. Besley & M. A. Peters (Eds.), Re-imagining the Creative University for the 21st Century (pp. 27-48). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers. http://hdl.handle.net/10289/8272.


Caroline Haythornthwaite is director and professor at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, the iSchool at UBC.

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